Page last updated at 13:17 GMT, Sunday, 24 May 2009 14:17 UK

Women's front-line role reviewed

Sarah Bryant
Sarah Bryant is the only British woman soldier to have died in Afghanistan

Ministers are to consider changing the rules limiting women's combat roles in the armed forces, the BBC has learned.

A review will be launched to examine whether female soldiers should be included in units whose key role is to seek out and kill the enemy.

The review is partly due to EU rules on equality which require reassessment of the issue every eight years.

The Ministry of Defence said it has an open mind, but one former Army chief said integration would harm operations.

To date there have been seven women killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, which equates to 2% of the total fatalities.

There are few roles in the military which remain off-limits to female personnel. They are engaged in highly dangerous tasks such as flying attack helicopters, driving in military convoys and are often part of foot patrols.

But they are still forbidden from serving in what is known as "close combat". That is fighting with units - mainly in the infantry - whose key role is to seek out, engage with and kill enemy forces.


In an exclusive interview with the BBC's Politics Show, Brig Richard Nugee, the Army's director of manning who is leading the review, said any decision to change the rules would be taken for military reasons.

Cpl Sarah Bryant, 26, from Carlisle, Army Intelligence Corps. Vehicle caught in explosion in Helmand, Afghanistan, 17/06/08
L/Cpl Sarah Holmes, 26, from Wantage, Army Royal Logistic Corps. Road traffic accident at Al Udeid airfield, Qatar, 14/10/07
Pte Eleanor Dlugosz, 19, from Southampton, Royal Army Medical Corps. Roadside bomb in Basra, Iraq, 05/04/07
2nd Lt Joanna Yorke Dyer, 24, from Yeovil, Army Intelligence Corps. Roadside bomb in Basra, Iraq, 05/04/07
Staff Sgt Sharron Elliott, 34, from Ipswich, Army Intelligence Corps. Attack on patrol boat on Shatt al-Arab waterway, Iraq 12/11/06
Flt Lt Sarah-Jayne Mulvihill, 32, from Canterbury, RAF. Missile attack on Lynx helicopter in Basra, Iraq, 06/05/06
Staff Sgt Denise Rose, 34, from Liverpool, Royal Military Police. Killed herself, Basra, Iraq, 31/10/04

He said: "The fact that an EU directive has asked us to do it is almost incidental.

"The real point is that we now have practical experience of women in combat in Afghanistan and Iraq and we want to see, genuinely want to see, what effect that will have on our military.

"This is a very open-minded review, we have no conclusions yet."

In 2002, the Ministry of Defence decided there was not enough evidence to prove women could be integrated into the tightly-knit units which engage in the most extreme type of warfare.

Former head of the Army, General Sir Mike Jackson, told The Politics Show he believed any change could lead to "concerns that operational effectiveness, particularly in the infantry, could be and probably would be, jeopardised".

According to the latest MoD figures, there are 187,060 members of the British armed forces, and 9.4% of them - some 17,620 - are female.

Of those women, 3,760 are officers.

In the RAF, 96% of all jobs are open to women, in the Royal Navy, the figure is 71% and in the Army, it is 67%

The MoD is unable to say exactly how many women are currently serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But some reports suggest about a fifth of military personnel in Afghanistan are female, even though they make up just a tenth of total military numbers.

The US Army also bars women from serving as infantry or in Special Forces roles. They are permitted to serve on combat ships and aircraft in war zones.

Israel is the only nation to conscript women to national service. Some drafted women are assigned to infantry combatant roles, potentially placing them on the front line of any conflict.

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